There are two primary ways you can increase your profits over and above what you pay your employees. Charge more for your work or reduce your costs. Here are a dozen suggestions for reducing costs in the finishing department.
Try less expensive finishes
This is the obvious one, but it comes with a caveat. You may also be lowering the quality of the work you’re turning out. But in my experience, you really don’t know. The one thing I do know is that more expensive finishes, stains, etc. aren’t always better. So it may be that lower-cost products still give you the quality you want.
To find out, you’re going to have to do some tests. Do the cheaper products spray just as well? Do they give you an equivalent build? Do they dry fast enough and get hard enough? You’ll need to determine the answers to questions like these. But you should notice differences pretty quickly if there are any.
Make the switch
If you haven’t already switched from high-pressure to HVLP spray guns, do it. You’ll have much less bounce-back and waste. Bounce-back is often called overspray, but it is the finish that bounces back off the object and gets caught up in the flow of air that is exhausted. Overspray is the spray that partially or totally misses the object and can be reduced just by improving your spraying technique.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to switch from a compressor to a turbine to get the reduced force that comes with HVLP. Most manufacturers make HVLP guns that work with compressed air.
Move the air
You need to have good exhaust for two reasons. The first, of course, is health. It’s unhealthy to have solvent and atomized finish floating around the finishing area. A mask doesn’t protect well enough. This is true even for water-based finishes.
The other reason is to prevent the atomized finish from settling back on your work and creating a rough surface. The air movement should be strong enough to pull the bounce-back off the work.
For quite some time in my early days I was doing my finishing in the back of my shop, where there was very poor lighting. When I built a separate spray room and installed excellent lighting, the difference was profound. I could see! And my work improved. Having to do serious repairs or do-overs became rare.
The temperature of the light affects color. You could be matching the color perfectly in one light only to discover that the match isn’t that good in another light. It’s always best to do the color matching in the same light the object will end up in, but this is usually not practical. So compromise by using full-spectrum fluorescent lighting to bring out all the colors.
Use high-quality abrasives. This is not a place to save money. Not using high-quality abrasives can lead to swirls due to the unevenness of the abrasive grains, inconsistent staining, or leave the wood in such poor condition that it takes more finish to produce a smooth result.
Related to using quality abrasives is the practice of trying to save money by using the abrasives until they get too worn. When abrasives lose their cutting ability, they polish, and this will result in uneven staining. When sandpaper gets worn and no longer produces similar amounts of sanding dust as when new, replace it.
Switch it up
You may be able to reduce costs by switching to higher-solids coatings, which allow you to get the same build with few applications. This is the argument, by the way, for water-based finishes, which have a higher solids content than many solvent-based finishes. Most manufacturers provide information about the solids content of their finishes.
Keep it clean
Maintaining your equipment is critical for lowering costs. Dirty spray-booth filters, leakage in your air-handling equipment, and problems with your make-up air will increase your electric bill and may lead to do-overs that wouldn’t otherwise be necessary.
Most important is to clean your spray guns after use or at the end of the day. This is especially the case when using water-based finishes. Lacquers and many catalyzed finishes can usually be cleaned adequately from spray guns by spraying solvent through them. The way you’ll know if this works is to take the guns apart after the solvent spraying and check. But in my experience spraying solvent through the guns doesn’t work well with water-based finishes. You have to disassemble the guns and clean all the parts individually. Then reassemble.
Use no-wipe stains
It’s often suggested that you apply a washcoat before staining to reduce blotching. But this adds an extra step to the process. It’s more efficient to spray a highly thinned stain and leave it without wiping. Stains sold for this process are called “no-wipe.” The process itself is often called “spray-to-color”. You are building the color slowly with thinned applications. Not thinning enough will lead to lap marks and reduced control.
The problem with the spray-to-color procedure is that grain isn’t highlighted. The color appears flat. To correct this, apply a wiping stain either directly over the no-wipe stain or over a washcoat depending on whether the wiping stain will dissolve and smear the no-wipe stain. Then wipe off the excess wiping stain.
Monitor the conditions
It’s important to always be aware of the temperature and humidity in the spray area. Cooler temperatures, especially after overnight in a cold shop, will lead to a thicker finish that will require more thinning or higher air pressure and more bounce-back to avoid orange peel, and maybe more coats. Higher humidity will lead to blushing in lacquers and slower drying in water-based finishes.
Test on scrap
To check that everything is working properly, it’s always a good idea to spray a test sample before beginning. You can do this on scrap wood, or on cardboard or brown paper you roll down from a pipe hung from the ceiling. Brown paper is good because you can see problems easier than with white paper. Doing this test also allows you to adjust the settings and air pressure so you can reduce flaws.
Write it down
Especially if more than one person is doing the spraying, create a detailed and written standard operating procedure. With this, variations in quality and appearance can be reduced and hopefully eliminated.
If you are in a large production shop, consider automating the finishing process. The initial cost will probably be substantial, but over time you’ll save money on labor and do-overs.
Bob Flexner is author of two books, “Understanding Wood Finishing,” and “Wood Finishing 101.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.